Here’s a persistent question I’ve never resolved – How do I “own” what I do, while not letting it define me?

On the one hand, feeling a sense of ownership is good. It means that instead of being a flesh blob that merely shows up at appointed hours, you’re engaged in understanding and solving a bigger problem. On the other hand, defining yourself by your work means you might neglect your family in favor of your job, or experience disproportionate stress and become a grouch when your work is going poorly.

Guesses about identity

Perhaps the weirdness about identity comes from how bad it is to take things personally when it comes to what we produce. No work is, or should be, about us, because real work is always in service of something larger, and anything personal is just an indulgence. E.g. I’m trying to make software that helps other people save time, journalists are trying to write stories that inform society of what’s happening, artists are trying to fashion pieces that inspire people to appreciate beauty, etc.

Perhaps another weirdness is due to ego, and how we have no way of being calm when we feel like we aren’t good enough. The only way to stay calm and be effective is to disassociate. Maybe this means that anyone who’s calm when being dumped by a significant other should feel free to conflate their identity with their work.

My strategy

The best way I’ve found to get around this confusion is to limit my identity-judging to cute little questions like, “Have I made a true effort to understand this piece of code?” Then I allow myself to feel good or bad depending on if I’ve fulfilled simple outcomes that I fully control. Perhaps every so often I consider at a larger scale whether this faith-based day-to-day, moment-to-moment attitude has served me well based on external validation, like whether I’ve built something meaningful.

There are likely better solutions and explanations. Anyone have them?

What it is

Hobby of the Month is something I did in 2012 and 2013, and I find myself mentioning it whenever people ask about how I came across the variety of activities I’ve dabbled in. The concept is to choose one activity each month, and then devote about an hour every day to working on it.

By default, I’ve always had a number of activities, but I had trouble committing to anything long enough to make real improvement. A month was a good choice for length of commitment, being long enough to develop some competency but short enough to not be intimidating, and daily was the logical choice of frequency for developing a habit. Without a habit, it’s easy to forgo doing anything productive in favor of watching television or passively ingesting news.

Why I started

(Note – I had a lot of trouble writing this part, and I concluded that it’s all sort of related Marx’s theory of alienation. So if you remember the bit about alienation of the worker from himself, you could probably skip my reasoning.)

I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling busy, but it was only when I started working that I became aware of how time was passing (e.g. 60 hours a week at work) and how time scarcity prevented me from feeling fully myself.

Many people come to define their identities through work and relegate their other interests to the category of “cool things I loved to do when I was younger and had time.” As much as I believe jobs in finance and consulting can be exciting, educational, and meaningful, the demand for time can be absurd. (And I know, I wasn’t even a banker!) It frustrates me that society funnels so many intelligent graduates into careers that discourage personal development outside of the job, simply by not providing much time.

But this only happens because many people seem to accept that it’s okay to put other aspects of life “on hold” – hobbies, relationships, etc. – for devotion to a job that should lead to a lucrative career. Implicit in this is an assumption that there isn’t much societal value in encouraging individuals to maintain a diverse array of interests. After all, the simplified world of microeconomics recommends we seek comparative advantage and economies of scale.

Some people are fortunate (or have accomplished enough) that the work they do professionally is truly, purely what they want to do, i.e. they would do it without pay and have little desire to do anything else. For most of us, we aren’t fulfilled by our professional work alone, and shelving parts of ourselves to focus on singular goals can only yield temporary benefits. Long term, our lives and work benefit if we clearly see our motivations for living and we feel like our actions fit into being a whole person. For me, this required a sense that I was gaining competence in a variety of activities, which hobby of the month fulfilled.

Why I stopped

In 2013 I started playing piano as a hobby of the month, but I found near the end of the month that I wanted to keep working on this instead of choosing something new. I kept playing piano every day for a few more months, transitioned to photography in the summer, and then started learning to sing towards the end of the year. In 2014, I also started figure skating, which still occupies the majority of my activity bandwidth.

I didn’t realize this when I started, but hobby of the month became practice for how to manage and evaluate a long list of potentially interesting activities. Having this schedule trained me to be open to discovering new activities, and also helped me see the value of committing to daily practice, even briefly. Now that I have this awareness, it no longer feels necessary to have a monthly schedule – I’m fully capable of finding new activities, committing regular time to them to improve, and deciding when to put something aside in favor of something else.


 

Hobbies I Remember

Yoga – Aside from attending yoga classes, I also had Yoga Anatomy as a reference – this book doesn’t suggest yoga routines, but for every pose, it has a thorough description and diagrams detailing muscles involved.

Meditation – Honestly, I feel like this is so variable that I sometimes forget why anyone bothers to define it. It doesn’t really matter if your eyes are open or closed, if you want to sit or move around, if you want to pay attention to one thing or try to notice your thoughts drifting. Just be aware and something good might happen. Focusing isn’t the same as meditation, but it’s somewhat related and this book was interesting. Later on, DevBootcamp recommended Search Inside Yourself, which was also a light but useful read.

Guitar – William Leavitt’s book is a pretty good linear introduction. As a former violinist, it’s so much fun learning instruments where frets keep you from being grossly out of tune. What’s the word for this, where some instruments allow an infinite number of in-between notes and some have a limited number of notes because of frets, keys, etc. (I want to say “quantized” like atomic systems but that’s not used by other people)?

Photography – Tony Northrup’s Digital Photography book is the most popular on amazon, and for good reason. Great overview, and his passion for photography shines through – the guy set up his backyard specifically to photograph birds! I love that.

Writing “meaningful” things – there wasn’t a stylistic restriction on this, and I mostly wrote in a journal or wrote a lengthy email to a friend. By making myself write for a certain length of time, I realized that initially mundane observations would turn into valuable insights – hidden assumptions, unexpected connections, and unrealized meaning – and that’s when I would feel satisfied that I’d written something meaningful.

Getting rid of things – I was inspired to minimalize after reading part of Thoreau’s Walden. I kept a blog about this month of choosing one “thing” (often a group of similar things) to remove from my life every day; it was a refreshing and rewarding exercise that changed my attitude towards acquiring objects.

Programming in python – I don’t remember getting too far in this (particularly compared to the education I got at DBC), but working with Learn Python the Hard Way was a nice reminder that I liked programming. Looking at the table of contents now, it still seems like a decently thorough introduction from syntax to setting up a basic server.

Learning French – I remember seeing many web sites recommend Tell Me More as even better than Rosetta Stone, since Tell Me More takes advantage of adults’ knowledge of grammar rather than Rosetta Stone’s childlike attitude of starting from the very beginning. I thought it was a decent system, but this company was actually acquired by Rosetta Stone in late 2013! So I can’t tell whether the software I was using is still available. During this month I also used Duolingo, tried to read Harry Potter A L’Ecole des Sorciers and of course, Le Petit Prince.

Piano – I followed the lessons in Alfred’s Adult Piano book and also played from books like The Best Songs Ever (how could I not buy something this hyperbolic?), Les Miserables, and Wicked.

Portland!

I’m happy to report that my first four days have been pleasant – my street smells like pine, and there’s been sunlight for two days in a row! I spent part of the weekend admiring creatively painted houses and buying adorable locally-sourced tiny things from stores with “supportland” cards (which was featured in comedians in cars getting coffee).

The house that I agreed to move into (after seeing 0 photos) is beautiful and green, and my roommates are great! They also have two dogs.

Kitten update – So I was requesting help on facebook to train Benny, the kitten that my roommates rescued a week ago (so nice to have cat-experienced friends, even if cats are overall weird), but unfortunately he’s been given away to a new family. The dogs were having a rough time getting along with him, so Benny’s now in a better home and I’ll be able to blog on the couch without holding a peacock feather to distract a cute but painful creature. I’m sorry he’s gone though – we had some cuddly sleepy moments together last night.

 

Thoughts on Moving

In the month or two leading up to this move, I’ve had a number of people comment that this move seemed like a risky and bold decision, since I have no job, no family, and no close friends here. I’m not sure if people actually believe this, or if it’s a statement originating from politeness (i.e. “that’s a bold move!” is nicer than “you’re crazy and you’re throwing away your career!”) or meant in the context of my outwardly risk-averse personality. Regardless, it’s been interesting to ponder, because this didn’t feel tremendously risky. I hope my reasons/conclusions could be helpful to other people like me considering relocations.

Money

Money is evil, it corrupts, and it doesn’t buy happiness, or so many of us debate. But undeniably, money buys things, and having necessary things frees up mental space. So having enough money and the expectation of earning enough money is important, because when you’re warm, healthy, and full of quinoa, everything’s easier – including moving and re-buying large but inexpensive items you decided to leave behind.

Having Stuff

It’s not completely about money, though – there are many high earners my age who don’t necessarily like their career path*, who wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving a stable career for a short-term educational program in preparation for a job that would pay significantly less (on face value at the start, anyway).

The financial feasibility of moving is clearly also a function of spending habits and dependence on having stuff. Keeping a low but sustainable standard of living lowers the risk of moving and feels great – it’s a wonderful comfort having a large gap between your baseline desires and what you could have.

For me, I’ve mostly accomplished this by living with roommates (which is also more entertaining and educational), keeping a reasonably short list of expensive items (I count ~5 items I own worth more than $300), and feeling naturally disinclined towards drinking, fine dining, and vacationing (which is slightly offset by a natural inclination towards hobbies).

Trusting People, Trusting Yourself

Having services like craigslist, airbnb, zipcar, etc. makes moving between cities so convenient, but it still requires trust – trust in other people and trust that the system will correct things if you encounter the wrong people. I’ve now found four successful room-share arrangements through craigslist, and currently I have full use of a borrowed mattress, a well-equipped kitchen, and beautiful living room furniture – just because I trust “random” people and they trust me.

Trust is also important in making new friends, i.e. believing that new friendships can be as meaningful and dependable as those from childhood. Sometimes my current friends are so good to me that I wonder how anyone outside of them could compare – but you have to trust that there are other people out there who can understand and accept you.

Ultimately, all of this relies on self-trust – belief that you can distinguish people who are trustworthy from people who aren’t. And more generally, this whole relocation is based on trust that I’ll figure out everything else too – like whether it’s weird to use an umbrella here and how to nicely tell people I don’t drink coffee.

 

*Aside – I’ve noticed that I often feel very defensive when people seem to assume that I hated my job in finance. I guess that’s normal since it was finance and I left, but I spent three years there because I liked it! I worked with great people, learned invaluable skills, and genuinely believed our work was more good than bad for the world.